The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 26, 2004


Concert Review Beethoven and Shubert on an 1816 pianoforte

Kenneth Drake, highly respected teacher, writer on Beethoven, and concert pianist appeared for the third time in the Cambridge Society for Early Music (CSEM) by Candlelight Series last Saturday evening at Union Hall. This concert opened CSEM's 24th season.

Drake's program began with two of Beethoven's late sonatas. The shorter, Opus 78 (1809), appears not to have completed. Drake told us that Beethoven commented to a friend that he hadn't found the time. Drake then played the Opus 110 (1821). After intermission the audience was treated to the familiar lyrical Allegretto from Schubert's Drei Klavierstücke and then his wonderful Sonata in C Minor, Opus 111.

On this visit Drake brought his own 1816 keyboard instrument, a pianoforte built by English manufacturer John Broadwood and Sons. This instrument is identical to the one given to Beethoven by Thomas Broadwood. Broadwood had met with Beethoven several times while on a visit to Vienna, finding him "so deaf and unwell." Upon returning to London he appointed five prominent musicians to choose a six-octave "grand piano" to be presented to the composer. Beethoven received the piano in late December 1817.

According to a fellow composer, Beethoven preferred the Broadwood to all his other pianos, despite wreacking "havoc on it in violent attempts to hear his own playing." The technician sent by Broadwood to service Beethoven's piano described it as resembling "a thorn bush after a gale."

Drake has the technical facility to convey all the subtleties, dynamics, fast passages, and contrapuntal voicing demanded by all of these pieces. In addition, he has a special ability to relate to his audience. Always the amiable lecturer and teacher, he solicited and answered questions in great detail about his pianoforte, Beethoven and his music.

What struck the audience was the distinctly different qualities of sound between the lower two octaves (15 notes), the middle two, and the top two octaves of the Broadwood. The highest register is light and "tinkle-ly"; the mid- range is richer and more balanced; the lowest 15-20 keys are dark, strident and more percussive. Sections of the Schubert sonatas were startling and dramatic with pounding deep octaves almost drowning out the higher notes.

Drake gave us much more than these differences in sound to think about. Both his conversation and the handout he prepared stressed how Beethoven's instrument had the "sound of inwardness, aloneness and, to our ears, insufficiency." Just as the Broadwood is best heard in an intimate surrounding, such as Union Hall, a late Beethoven sonata is also most successful "heard as an intimate statement." Previous experience of these reviewers has been that Beethoven's late sonatas were complex, dark and difficult to follow. However, the performance by Drake provided an opposite experience. "On a modern piano, the opening movement of Opus 110 is a soliloquy spoken to be heard; on a period instrument a soliloquy overheard." And we followed along easily through the entire piece.

Drake stressed another insight that this pianoforte gives to the performer and listener. The "complexity" of the last sonatas is Beethoven's reaction to his frustrations of deafness by his challenging limitations of the instrument. "When the instrument is forced beyond its tonal resources, music such as the first movement of Opus 110 becomes the working out on a plane of art that which cannot be resolved in everyday life. The impression of struggle speaks to an understanding that Beethoven's music is not always 'beautiful,' but that it is always meaningful."

This concert provided a blend of an historic instrument with a performer whose musical sensitivity created a rare chance to experience Beethoven's and Schubert's mature music in its 19th- century sound. The audience was clearly moved and appreciative.

A reception with delicious refreshments followed, along with opportunity for members of the audience to try the keyboard and to talk with Kenneth Drake.

The next Early Music concert in Carlisle, on January 7, will feature a Mexican soprano and instrumentalists playing music of the Spanish Empire.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito